Forest dept ups vigil as demand for wood spikes in crematoriums

Updated on May 13, 2021 05:39 AM IST

New Delhi As the city grapples with a rising demand of wood for cremations of Covid-19 victims, the Delhi forest department is now on its guard to control cases of illegal cutting of trees in the capital

A similar instance of trees being felled was also reported by environment activists on April 9 from Sundar Nagar.(Manjunath Kiran / AFP)
A similar instance of trees being felled was also reported by environment activists on April 9 from Sundar Nagar.(Manjunath Kiran / AFP)
By, Hindustan Times, New Delhi

As the city grapples with a rising demand of wood for cremations of Covid-19 victims, the Delhi forest department is now on its guard to control cases of illegal cutting of trees in the capital.

Senior forest department officials said that instances of illegal felling of trees have started coming to their notice and said it could have been prompted by the sudden surge in demand for wood for cremations. The forest officials, along with Delhi Police, are keeping a close watch on the black-marketing and sale of wood for funeral pyres, officials said.

For instance, on May 2, a case of the illegal cutting of four fully grown trees was reported from south Delhi’s Dera Mandi. While the south division of the forest department sealed the area and is conducting an inquiry into the felling, officials have not been able to retrieve the timber.

A similar instance of trees being felled was also reported by environment activists on April 9 from Sundar Nagar, where forest department confirmed that no permissions to cut trees were given to any construction agency or individual.

Forest officials suspect that limited availability has fuelled instances of illegal wood trade in different parts of Delhi and NCR, which needs to be checked to control long-term damage.

“While we are providing permissions to the municipalities for the cutting of dead and dried trees, we are keeping a close watch to ensure only the municipal agencies are cutting the trees and that too in the required number. But we are also stressing that civic agencies should come up with a long term solution for this high number of cremations because this pandemic is not going to get over in a day or in a week. We need to come up with more sustainable solutions such as electric and CNG-fuelled cremation facilities so that damage to trees can be minimised,” said a senior forest official.

Forest department records show that the south division has granted permissions for the felling of 400 dead and dried trees to the municipality, while the north division has granted early cutting permissions to the National Capital Region Transport Corporation (NCRTC) for the construction of the Regional Rapid Transit System (RRTS) at Ashok Nagar, so that the wood can be sent to the local crematoriums. The north division is also in the process of identifying fallen trees in the Bonta Park, Kamla Nehru Ridge, so that these can be used for funeral pyres if required.

“We are only giving permissions to government agencies and not entertaining any private requests now,” said Navneet Srivastava, deputy conservator forests (west division).

When the death toll in the national capital started rising exponentially under the second wave of coronavirus, the three municipalities (east, north and south Delhi municipal corporations) had written separate letters to the forest department to make arrangements of wood, as the municipal-run funeral homes were running out of wood for pyres.

Residents living in the Capital’s outskirts said that while the focus of the government and the municipal agencies are on the big crematoriums, there are smaller facilities which have become massively starved of resources, which is also leading to instances of families having to buy wood at high rates.

“Every village here has a crematorium but because of the pandemic, these facilities claim to have run out of supplies. Grieving families are often asked to get wood. Each pile of wood, which is some 200-300 kg, is sold at 20,000 or so. Not just Covid deaths, families of people who are dying of other causes also have to arrange resources,” said Karamveer Singh, a resident of Najafgarh’s Ghummenhera Village.

While the forest rules stress that only government-approved suppliers can arrange wood to crematoriums -- to ensure the prevention of illegal cutting and trade of wood -- another resident of Tikri Kalan, bordering Haryana, said that wood dealers ensure that the piles are supplied to cremation facilities after the payment is received.

“We bought wood for my cousin’s cremation. He died of cardiac arrest and we could not get him tested for Covid. The city is facing a crisis; we had no other option but to arrange for resources ourselves. What should we have done? We could not have waited endlessly for the crematorium to get wood,” said Rahul Chaudhury, from Tikri Kalan, who paid 9,500 for the wood.

A caretaker of the Nigambodh Ghat crematorium, which is among the largest cremation facilities in the city, explained that since the municipal facilities are managed by NGOs, the wood here is supplied by government suppliers.

“By April-end and beginning of May, the death count was so high that we were facing a severe shortage of wood. Even though this is a big facility, we had to cut the wood for funeral pyres from the usual 500-600 kg per body, to around 450 kg, to save wood. The situation of smaller cremation facilities is worse,” the caretaker said, requesting anonymity.

The municipalities said that they were experimenting with alternative and sustainable technologies to meet the Covid crisis.

“We (north corporation) have very recently started making logs of dried cow dung, and shredded crop stubble, which is a farm waste. The east corporation has also issued directions to use cow dung so that the consumption of wood is less,” said north Delhi mayor Jai Prakash.

Meanwhile, BK Singh, former principal chief conservator forests in Karnataka, said that the temporary shortage of wood may not result in any long-term damage, but added that it is important that the forest department keep a close watch on illegal traders. “The shortage might be solved in a few days but it is imperative that this market for illegal wood is not encouraged because demand is often man-made. In these circumstances, the forest department should in fact press agencies to plant more trees in lieu of what is being cut,” Singh said.

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

    Soumya Pillai covers environment and traffic in Delhi. A journalist for three years, she has grown up in and with Delhi, which is often reflected in the stories she does about life in the city. She also enjoys writing on social innovations.

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